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Judge Davies Integrates Southern Schools, Part 1

8/30/2004:

On this day in 1957, a North Dakota judge made a decision that marked a milestone in the civil rights movement.

Ronald Davies was born in 1904, and his early education took place in Crookston, MN, Fargo, and Grand Forks. He was the son of a newspaperman, and two of his uncles had newspapers, too. “I don’t quite know how I escaped the smell of printer’s ink,” he later said, “but I told my father and my uncles almost from the start that I wanted to be a lawyer.”

Davies went to UND, paying his way by selling newspaper subscriptions. He was athletic and sports-minded, but because he was on the small side – 5' 1" – coaches didn’t take him seriously. Showing the determination and tenacity for which he would become known, Davies built up his legs and stamina by plodding through deep snow – and won a varsity letter as a sprinter.

Davies graduated in 1927, earned his law degree from Georgetown University, and then hung out his shingle in Grand Forks. “I was in general practice,” he later said.

“Criminal, civil, probate – anything any misguided client would retain a young lawyer for. It was tough going. So in 1932, I ran for municipal judge and was elected. You see, I didn’t like to get out of the habit of eating.”

He was only 28 years old when he ascended to the bench, and he was appointed to the North Dakota State Board of Pardons eight years later. World War II interrupted his career in 1942; he was discharged in 1946 as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Davies went back to private practice, and then, in June 1955, President Eisenhower appointed him United States District Court Judge for North Dakota. Two years later, on August 26, 1957, Davies was asked to temporarily fill a vacant seat in Arkansas’s Eastern District. He wasn’t aware that he was walking into a minefield.

The Deep South was struggling with desegregation, as it had for many decades. Arkansas was considered the most progressive of the southern states, and it was in Little Rock that the first integration of a secondary school was about to happen. Nine black students had made the courageous decision to attend Central High School in the “Plan of School Integration.”

When Davies arrived, he was immediately given a case called Aaron vs. Cooper in which the “Mother’s League of Central High School” had won a temporary injunction to block the school’s integration, charging that it “could lead to violence.” Davies was there not only to interpret the law, but also to see to it that it was carried out. Brown vs. the Board of Education was the historic case in which school integration was slated to take place “with all deliberate speed.” Davies believed in “less deliberation and more speed,” and four days later – on this date in 1957 – he nullified the injunction and ordered Central High School to integrate the following week.

Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had no intention of letting that happen. Claiming he wanted to avoid bloodshed, Faubus called up 100 armed National Guardsmen to surround the school when the young African Americans arrived. The Guards barred their entry, and a mob of 400 white extremists surrounded the teenagers with threats of lynching. The students were forced to leave.

Faubus’s defiance of Judge Davies’ court order was the first major test of Brown v. Board of Education . Tune in tomorrow to learn what happened next.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm